A smoker rages against politicians

Updated: 06 April, 2020 07:18 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

All tastes are acquired and then become a habit - does that apply to power-addict politicos? Does a voice murmur, 'Power power power'?

What will lie at the core of any history that is written of India's experience of COVID-19?. Pic/Suresh Karkera
What will lie at the core of any history that is written of India's experience of COVID-19?. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Ajaz AshrafIt is March 29 and I have been at the computer for a while, struggling to think of an opening line to the piece I am writing on India's Great March, of migrant workers walking to their villages. They are on the TV, which I have muted. What should I write — that "the night is shattered, and the blue stars shiver in the distance."? And then the voice returns, sharper than before: Smoke, smoke, smoke.

Beginning a piece is always difficult. It has been particularly strenuous today, because I did not go through the ritual of smoking a cigarette with coffee before sitting down to write. I did that because I have been rationing cigarettes ever since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave us less than four hours to prepare for a 21-day lockdown.

As I stare at the cursor on the screen, the voice chants: Smoke, smoke, smoke. I un-mute the TV, and the anchor is saying, "With no chance of making money in cities under lockdown, they want to go to their villages where they will at least get food to eat. Their march increases the risk of community transmission of COVID-19." The fear of hunger has made people disregard their own safety, I conclude.

A wave of dread sweeps over me. Will I, after I run through my smokes, become desperate enough to hit the streets? There has to be someone offering nicotine-relief at a premium. Smoke, smoke, smoke, the voice hollers. I give in. I light a cigarette. I experience the euphoria of normalcy as endorphins rush through my blood.

The voice asks: How many cigarettes do you still have? I focus on thoughts humming in my head. The TV shots of people walking evoke the image of Partition. There are differences, though — the nation, today, is divided into classes, not religious communities. They are marching from India to Bharat, not from Pakistan to India or vice versa. There is no one around to loot or kill them, as was the story of Partition.

I am encouraged. I belatedly perform the ritual — I make myself a cup of coffee and light up. The voice promptly asks: How many cigarettes do you still have? Let my stock get exhausted, I respond acerbically, recalling the World Health Organisation's warning to not smoke in these days of COVID-19, which ruthlessly preys on those whose respiratory system rasps or rattles.

My irritation segues into anger: Could not the WHO have warned us of COVID-19 long before it did? But then, could the WHO's warning have made a difference to Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party? India reported its first COVID-19 case on 30 January. For well over a month, they fanned anger against protesters opposing the citizenship law, let the riots rage in Delhi, planned a grand welcome for US President Donald Trump, and plotted to capture power in Madhya Pradesh.

Then the guillotine fell; the lockdown, I mean. Where is Home Minister Amit Shah? Is it possible to kill the virus with hate? Termites are easy to exterminate. It is difficult for everyone to fight his or her addiction. What is Amit Shah doing? I toss the butt into the ashtray. Every cigarette I smoke means I am sliding closer to irritability and insomnia, and my ability to focus impaired.

Those who are not addicted to smoking can never fathom the meaning of desperation. Ask alcoholics. Or try food without salt or garlic? I heard someone inquire from the grocer whether he has custard powder. Some crave for custard and garlic, I for my nicotine hit. All tastes are acquired and then become a habit. Think of Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, who tweeted, "I am watching 'Ramayana', are you?"

No sir, to fight the temptation to smoke, I watch India's Great March. Deprived of nicotine, I know the desperation of marchers is more acute than mine, infinitely more than Javadekar's. Does the voice in the politician always murmur: Power, power, power?

I once asked my dad, "How does it feel to give up smoking?" He replied, "I do not feel I am the same person." Neither India nor I have felt the same over the last six years. And now, with cigarette rationing, I sometimes feel I am a zombie.

I take out Yasmin Khan's book, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, from the rack. She observes: "Violence must sit at the core of any history of Partition." A question: What will lie at the core of any history that is written of India's experience of COVID-19? I ponder before I utter: the Indian state's contempt for the desperate.

I think I have my beginning. May I have one more cigarette to celebrate, please?

Yes, says the voice.

Postscript: Starved of nicotine, I failed to do my piece on India's Great March. And anyway the media buzz has moved to Tablighi Jamaat, PM-CARES, and the power of lighting candles for nine minutes.

The writer is a senior journalist

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First Published: 06 April, 2020 04:19 IST

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